The most innovative camper van on display at this year's CMT show in Stuttgart wasn't actually a van at all. The PlugVan is a universal plug-and-play camper module that slides into the back of any cargo van, grows in size to fill out the space and provides a smart home-like living space while leaving room for motorbikes, camping gear and other cargo. Turn your work van into a camper van on Friday afternoon and back again on Monday morning, or rent a van and create an affordable, holiday-ready camper van in minutes.

Tired of the high prices, depreciation and hassles of camper van ownership, PlugVan founder Jörg Kortmann set out to create a new solution in 2017. Generally speaking, his idea was to create a van version of the pickup camper, a versatile, all-in-one camping module not tied to an individual van. Along the way, he added a state-of-the-art smart home system that lets occupants control all of the onboard electrical equipment via smartphone or voice.

The PlugVan concept is similar to the ioCamper that became one of our favorite camper concepts of 2018, but the execution is very different. Both designs have some smart, connected features, but the PlugVan is much simpler and more straightforward, designed to fit neatly in the back of the van.

That doesn't mean the PlugVan won't turn heads just like the ioCamper, though. Even in a nondescript corner of CMT, the PlugVan drew in hordes of attendees, most wearing some form of "what the heck is it?!" facial expression. A more polite version of that question was indeed the first thing out of our mouths when we strolled up to the rear bumper of the Peugeot Boxer rental van, a van that was all masked over to make the point that the display was not a Boxer camper van but something quite different.

What the PlugVan is is a 6.6-foot-long (2-m) slide-in camping module that rolls into the back of the van on four retractable legs. The design is fully manual, requiring the owner to roll it forward until the front is supported by the load floor of the van. He or she then pulls the front legs up and proceeds to slide it in via the rear legs and floor-level wheels, before pulling those rear legs up and rolling it all the way in.

Once inside the van, the PlugVan module secures via the load floor tie-downs, and the adjustable walls and ceiling grow to fit the full height and width of the van interior. Both the sides and the roof offer up to a foot (30 cm) of expansion, designed to work with the gamut of Euro-market large-van roof heights and load area widths.

In fact, van flexibility is a foundational principle of the PlugVan design, and Kortmann was so excited about it, he politely grabbed our notebook and started furiously scratching van models down: Volkswagen Crafter/MAN TGE, Mercedes Sprinter, Fiat Ducato/Citroën Jumper/Peugeot Boxer, Renault Master/Opel Movano/Nissan NV400, Ford Transit, Iveco Daily and Hyundai H350. Kortmann reckons that list covers the vast majority of large vans available on the European market and, by extension, other markets where those vans are offered under the same make/models or alternative badges.

With about five minutes of slide-in/set-up time, the PlugVan turns the cold, metal-walled cargo van cabin into a cozy camper van, bringing with it a convertible lounge/dinette/bed, kitchen area, climate control, and smart home system more comprehensive than what major motorhome manufacturers are offering.

The PlugVan interior supports full flexibility and multifunctional use. The cabinets hang from a coat closet-style rod and can easily slide back and forth as needed. The kitchen block folds out into a dining table, lifts up out of the way to make room for the bed and even doubles as a breakfast-in-bed console. The 63 x 77-in (160 x 196-cm) bed builds up in about a minute with some rearranging of cushions.

Just as impressive as the unique "deconstructed camper van" design is the PlugVan's smart home control system. Camper van converters, motorhome manufacturers and van-makers like Mercedes-Benz are starting to incorporate more and more smart home-style hardware into their builds, but PlugVan has developed the most comprehensive little system we've seen for a camper, offering full monitoring and control of all onboard electronics and electrical equipment.

PlugVan's wireless digital control system ties together three-zone lighting control/dimming, climate adjustment, systems and levels monitoring, fan speed control, refrigerator monitoring and adjustment, GPS and more into both the built-in touchscreen and smartphone app. This wireless control works via local network and is available online or off. When the system is connected to the web via the integrated SIM card, it also offers Amazon Alexa voice control.

Beyond that, the PlugVan is a nicely equipped little camper, complete with small air conditioner, portable single-burner stove, slide-out fridge box, shore-power-operated heater, dual 70-Ah AGM batteries, 43-L fresh and waste water tanks, and plenty of under-bench storage drawers and cabinets. The walls are uninsulated, but there is a small amount of space between the outer module walls and inner van walls, offering some insulation from the outside.

One interesting advantage of the PlugVan compared to a full camper van conversion is that it leaves open a large amount of cargo space in the van, as you can see in the photo below. This gives you plenty of space for bicycles, motorcycles, snow sports equipment, camping gear and more. The clear central aisle of the PlugVan box itself makes possible through-loading oblong gear like surfboards.

Beyond saving money compared to buying a new camper van, the PlugVan is designed to save money in other ways. The company points out that, unlike camper van rentals, cargo van rentals aren't subject to the same kind of high- and low-season pricing, so you can rent at a stable price, year-round. It even suggests that owners might work with van rental companies to store the module at the lot when not in use and rent it out to other travelers, earning a little extra income along the way.

PlugVan held its big public debut at the CMT show, and Kortmann said the company chose the venue over the Düsseldorf Caravan Salon because it hoped some of the residual tech buzz from CES would help sharpen receptiveness to the concept of a high-tech camper van-without-a-van. The fully equipped module at the show, complete with Alexa/touch-based smart home control and all the other features, prices in at €20,000 (approx. US$22,725), but PlugVan also plans to offer simpler, stripped down models right down to €6,000 (US$6,825). It has a separate add-on toilet/shower module in the works that will fill out part of the extra space inside the van without eating up all the cargo capacity.

Source: PlugVan (German)

View gallery - 38 images